Marines from the CS Carraway had landed their troopship and had been accosted by a detachment of their comrades from the Concordia. The standoff had not lasted long, much to Bellegarde’s surprise. Lieutenant Xao had determined that he and his troops were outnumbered and that the game was all about politics and had little to do with saving lives. His group had stood down without firing a shot.
In the meantime, Bellegarde had called for a vidconference of the skippers from each of his escorts, including the two supply ships. He had explained to those skippers exactly what had transpired between Space Marshal Gregarov and the president. He had staunchly defended Admiral Tolwyn and himself and had expressed his unyielding commitment to the course had had chosen. The skippers had not been a difficult audience to convince; if only Captain Boonesta had been among them. Communications from her ship indicated that she had sought assistance in dealing with “this second renegade.” Though her destroyer presented only a marginal threat to the Concordia, she had shifted her vessel out of its usual flanking position and had brought the Carraway in close, threatening a point-blank torpedo barrage.
To suppress that threat, Bellegarde had dispatched a score of Rapiers that had been buzzing over the destroyer for the past twenty-four hours. If Boonesta so much as opened a tube, Bellegarde had assured her that his fighters would initiate a surgical strike from which the destroyer would not recover.
Thus, the standoff continued, with hundreds of Pilgrim pilots expressing their fear and outrage over what appeared to them as a civil war between those who stood on the brink of annihilating their world. Although the motley fleet of refugee ships hovered well off the supercruiser’s stern, any powerful explosion from it or the destroyer would send shock waves surging their way. Those small ships were not equipped to handle forces of that magnitude and would tumble into each other like leaves in a gale.
“Sir?” Executive officer Geranata called as he left the communications station and approached the command chair. “She’s raising the stakes. We just patched into a comm drone from the Promise system. Boonesta’s convinced Captain Lyndestal of the supercrusier Semoran to divert to McDaniel. The Semoran should be here by eighteen-twenty hours.”
Bellegarde breathed a curse. “So this is how it feels to be a renegade.”
“Sir, the XO respectfully suggests that we abandon this course of action and stand down upon the Semoran’s arrival.”
“Afraid of going head-to-head with another supercruiser? I thought you were anxious to get back into combat.”
“Not that anxious. Besides, sir, we’re too evenly matched for--”
“Don’t worry, XO. We won’t have to fight because we know what they want, and we’ll give it to them.”
Bellegarde cocked a brow. “Not exactly...”
Blair and Obutu had successfully jumped at the Alliance system and now flew at ninety percent thrust on a vector that took them twenty thousand Ks off the shipping lanes. Blair’s Tempest AI reported that they would reach McDaniel’s World a few minutes early, at 1841 hours. The onboard clock read 1710, and Blair fidgeted in his seat as he anticipated meeting up with Karista and getting the hell out of his cockpit.
Most non-pilots had no idea of what it was like to fly a long-range op that confined you to a cockpit for four days. Besides the obvious discomforts of having to use catheters to alleviate bodily fluids and other waste (the gentleman’s way of putting it), you didn’t have much room to stretch or exercise your muscles. Yes, the seat did recline quite a bit, and you could roll over, but muscle spasms, cramps, and headaches remained unavoidable and had been Blair’s close personal enemies during most of the ride.
“Just over an hour, Mr. Blair,” Obutu said, beaming from the Visual Display Unit. “That sun up ahead sure looks sweet. Been a long haul. Do we have a target?”
“Not yet, sir. I’ve been waiting for Karista to contact me. I hope she got off planet. That was the plan.”
“Well, if she didn’t, we got a serious problem. Our life support’s good until twenty-two forty-five, then we have to ditch. And we can’t go down and get her, unless we sweet talk the space marshal out of a troopship. I’m good, Lieutenant, but sweet talk? That’s not me. Can you contact Karista?”
Blair twisted his lip. “I’m good, Commander, but you know the rest. I think I might’ve contacted someone once, guy named Frotur McDaniel. He died back on the Olympus. But I’m not sure.” Blair shrugged. “I’ll give it try.”
Just look out there. I mean really look out there.
Those words had belonged to Paladin, and they had made a complex task sound effortless and natural. I’ll try it again, he thought, then squinted at the field of stars seemingly shed from the brilliant sun called McDaniel.
He thought her name. Then he slammed his head against the seat and gave up.
I’ve tried so hard to figure out who am I. And if I say I’m Pilgrim and an extrakinetic, then I should be able to do this. But I can’t. So maybe I am just a half-breed freak, and my bag of tricks has a hole in it.
Karista? Where the hell are you?
The stench inside the evacuation shuttle had Karista occasionally gagging with the rest of the passengers. Nine hundred and twenty five Pilgrims had piled into a passenger liner designed to accommodate eight hundred. The Marines had simply filled the ship based on weight. Of course, those Marines had failed to consider what the living conditions might be like with so much overcrowding. The bathroom facilities had broken down. Dozens of children sat in soiled clothing. The air recyclers could barely handle the extra load, and the cabin’s temperature seemed to increase several degrees each hour. As for food, you had what you brought with you. Karista had not eaten in the past day, nor had she asked for a handout.
As was her nature, she had stepped gingerly around the cabin, offering to help those in need. She had spoon fed an elderly woman whose caregiver had become space sick. She had done her best to clean up two little girls and a boy whose mother had struggled to keep them near. She had led a group of frightened teenagers in a prayer session and had danced one of her storesas for them in an attempt to lighten the mood.
But all the while, her thoughts had been on Dennet and Christopher. Dennet had yet to get off the planet. He stood near the front of a line that ran the length of the entire terminal. He, too, had not eaten and would not speak to those around him. Karista felt responsible for his brooding. And though she knew she could not have Christopher, her perfect pair in the continuum, she could not quiet that voice inside that told her to make him fall in love with her. But why should she pursue a doomed relationship when she had Dennet more than willing to comfort, protect, and love her?
Because she didn’t need comforting, protecting, or loving. What did she need?
“Sostur, they tell me that you were a dancer in the protur’s private troupe,” said a furry-eared old man who had come up to Karista’s seat. “My daughter was a dancer, too. Maybe you know her, Sostur Tidell Iella?”
Karista nodded politely. “I know her well. But I haven’t seen her since the protur’s death. How is she?”
The old man rubbed his burning eyes, and his voice cracked. “We don’t know. Rumor has it that you’re an extrakinetic. We were wondering if you--”
She shook her head. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I just can’t. It’s isn’t you. It’s just... me.”
After glowering at her a moment, the old abandoned his argument and waddled back to his seat.
Stricken by guilt and resigning herself to the strain it would place on her, Karista surrendered to the continuum and navigated through thousands of scripts, searching for Sostur Tidell. As she found Tidell’s script and shivered over the horror that had befallen the woman, a distant and familiar voice beckoned her away. She shot across the heavens and found him. “Christopher? You called to me,” she said excitedly as she stared at him seated in his fighter. “I’m on this transport. See it?”
“Yeah, but you have to get off. We’ll never get landing clearance for a civilian liner. You’ll have to jettison in one of the dinghies. I’ll tractor you in. Can you do that?”
“You can bet I’ll try.”
“Good. I’ll be there at eighteen forty-one. Contact me. I’m not so good at this Pilgrim stuff.”
She tried to smile. Couldn’t. “You’re not so bad either.”
“I know you were out there,” interjected someone else.
Karista turned toward the voice. The old man had returned and now shook a gnarled index finger at her. “You did look for her. I know you did. You’re not the first extrakinetic I’ve known. Did you find her? Please, we have to know.”
“I found her. And I’m sorry.”
The man grabbed her shoulders. “She’s not...”
“I saw her. The Marines, they--”
“No, you’re lying.”
Karista forced herself deeper into the chair. “I wish I could do something, but I can’t.”
“Ohmygod.” The old man turned away and bumped into seats as he left.
As Karista sat there, with the man’s stricken face flashing through her mind’s eye, she turned her thoughts to her own loss, to Fey. She pictured the frail woman’s smile and heard Fey’s thundering voice. It took only moment more for the tears to come.
“Drone in from the admiral,” Comm Officer Wilks cried. “Message decrypted.”
Bellegarde swiveled his chair toward a viewer. “Show me.”
Although somewhat bedraggled, Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn wore a smile so tight that only God could pry it from his lips. “Richard, I’ve just learned about the little renegade party you’ve been having. Carry on. All charges have been dropped against us. The president is dead. It hasn’t been confirmed, but I believe she committed suicide. Space Marshal Gregarov has been indicted. Sorry to be so curt, but time, as always, is an issue. Now then, I’ve been apprised of our evacuation efforts. Nevertheless, you will begin your bombing of McDaniel’s World at zero hour, at which time you will also dispatch comm drones to our ships in each of the Pilgrim systems and enclaves. Set drones with long-range self-destruct in the event that Aristee stands down.” He looked off camera to a display. “I should be there by oh-three-twenty. We will carry out the senate’s order. And may God help us all. Tolwyn out.”
With a fresh rush of adrenaline, Bellegarde consulted his watchphone: 1818 hours. He cocked his head to Radar Officer Abrams. “How ‘bout it, Mister?”
“Got her now, sir. Two minutes out and closing. She’s hailing us.”
“Do not respond.” Bellegarde regarded his executive officer with a nod. The XO hustled off the bridge, only to return a moment later with the dear, sweet space marshal in tow. A Marine guard towered just behind the seething woman.
“Hello, Sandra,” Bellegarde said.
“Don’t Sandra me, you mutinous bastard.”
“In about a minute, the CS Semoran will be here. If you’re not in command, she and the Carraway will take this ship by force or destroy her if necessary. We need you to pretend that you’re in command.”
Gregarov’s face flushed with incredulity, then she broke into laughter. “You’re pathetic.”
He tapped a button on the comm screen and played for her the message from Tolwyn. He increased the volume as Tolwyn mentioned that the president was dead and that Gregarov had been indicted. “They find you guilty, you’ll be sentenced to death. You help us now, they might let you live.”
Gregarov wanted to remain strong; Bellegarde sensed that. But as she further considered the situation, her smile faded and her eyes narrowed to hold off the tears. “I lose either way. Why don’t you just show them Tolwyn’s message?”
“Could be a fake. I need you on this bridge and transmitting live.”
She cursed him, then bolted for the lift.
The Marine stood like a crimson pylon in her path.
“Let me go,” she snapped.
Bellegarde shook his head. “Consider me your attorney. I’m just looking out for your best interests. I need you to contact the Semoran and lie. That won’t be a stretch for you.”
“I won’t do it.”
“Then welcome to a shooting war. If we survive, we can look back and say that it could’ve been prevented if Gregarov had simply complied. You’re going to draw even more than a death sentence. Confederation citizens will be spitting on your grave for centuries.”
“This is supposed to persuade me?”
“Enough people have died. It’s your call.”
“Sir? Hails continuing from the Semoran. If we don’t answer, they’ve threatened to open fire,” said Comm Officer Wilks. “Now receiving second transmission from Commander Corey Obutu of the Tiger Claw. He wants to speak to the space marshal. Says it’s urgent.”
“The Claw’s stationed at Netheranya,” Bellegarde said, furrowing his brow. “Where is the commander?”
“The transmission originates from a Rapier about twenty minutes out, sir. He has a wingman. Pilot identified as Lieutenant Christopher Blair.”
Bellegarde rose. “Let me talk to the commander.”
“He wants to talk to me,” Gregarov spat, then steered herself to the comm station and glared at Wilks. “Put him through.” She paused a second, then eyed the monitor. “This is Space Marshal Gregarov.”
“Ma’am, Lieutenant Blair and I need a favor. There’s a woman on one of those civilian liners behind you. In her possession is hard evidence that you must see before you order the attack. She’s going to jettison in one of the liner’s dinghies. The lieutenant and I want to bring her aboard. Please trust us. We wouldn’t have come all this way for nothing.”
Gregarov craned her head to Bellegarde. “I’m assuming command of this ship.” Then she gazed intently at the monitor. “Permission granted, Commander. Get that woman here--”
“Sir!” shouted Radar Officer Abrams. “The Semoran has opened her tubes! The Carraway is moving off.”
“Get me Captain Lyndestal,” Gregarov ordered.
“Evasive maneuvers,” Bellegarde cried to the helmsman. “XO? Shields up. Rig the ship for impact!”
Geranata bolted for the starboard observation station. “Aye-aye, sir. Shields up. Rigging the ship for impact.”
“They’re jamming all but ultra low emergency frequency,” Wilks told the space marshal.
“Torpedoes fired,” said Abrams. “First contact bearing three-three-four by five-zero-nine. Designate Alpha one-one, Tyx-class ship-to-ship missile. Range: one-nine-one-five Ks. Velocity: three-seven-nine KPS and holding.”
As Abrams continued his report, designating the other three incoming torpedoes, Bellegarde rattled off orders to weapons control officers, instructing them to target and shoot down the incoming ordnance--though he suspected that their efforts would be in vain.
Three seconds later, his suspicions became fact as the first torpedo wove through a trellis of antimatter fire and delivered a mace-like blow to the port bow. The impact nearly knocked Bellegarde off his feet.
The second denotation brought him to his knees.
And the third slammed him onto his gut.
“Sir? Rapiers shadowing the Carraway request permission to fire,” said Wilks.
“Fourth contact destroyed,” Abrams announced. “But the Carraway is opening her tubes, sir. And Civilian vessels report incoming shock wave.”
“Send out the distress call. Broadcast our surrender on ultra low emergency frequency,” boomed Gregarov, who had also been thrown to the deck.
As the explosions peeled off to uncover the stars, Bellegarde gripped the arm of his command chair and tugged himself up. A glimmering speck stood far off the starboard bow. “There she is,” he muttered. “Coming in for the kill. And we can’t answer her attack.”
Blair squirmed in his seat as he watched the firefight raging against the bluish green aura of McDaniel’s World. “Sir, why are they--”
“They’re keeping their promise,” Obutu cut in. “I reviewed a few transmissions. Bellegarde apparently assumed command of the fleet, and they want him to surrender.”
“But you talked to the space marshal. She sounded like she was in command.”
“Or had just assumed command. I don’t pretend to understand this. I’m picking up a DAS signal from the Concordia.”
“Seems so. But we got bigger worries. Shock waves are moving through that civilian flotilla. Time to light ‘em, Lieutenant. Burn it all but maneuvering thrust for landing. Has Karista jettisoned?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hope she hasn’t. Contact her.”
Obutu issued the request as though asking for a cup of coffee. Blair ground his teeth. I can do this...
“Afterburners on my mark,” Obutu said tersely. “Mark!”
Karista had thought she would have a difficult time opening the hatch to the dinghy ports. She had assumed that she would have to call upon her extrakinetic senses to either bypass the lock or to persuade one of the liner’s midshipmen to open it for her. But as fate would have it, the hatch had been left open. She had found her way into one of the dinghies, had suited up, and had strapped herself into the pilot’s seat. One touch on the main control pad had engaged the sleek, boomerang-shaped craft’s AI launch system. She had felt only the brief changeover from the liner’s artificial gravity to the dinghy’s, otherwise the jettison had gone off so smoothly that it made her tingle with the notion that something would go wrong.NEXT
Her premonition had not gone unanswered.
“Computer, can’t you adjust course?” she asked frantically as the dinghy, buffeted by the shock wave, banked suddenly hard to starboard and rocketed toward the liner.
“Course correction ineffective,” the computer reported flatly. “Force of shock wave too great for jets. Recommend abandoning ship.”
“This is a lifeboat,” she shouted, then slammed a fist on the console. Her gaze widened as the liner’s heavily scored hull became much too distinct.
Then she sensed something distant, faint, familiar. There it was again, the barest sense of Christopher calling to her. She answered with a cry for his help as the dinghy sideswiped the liner and began dragging along its hull. Showers of sparks and gray chutes of smoke erupted from the cockpit instrumentation as durasteel scraped horribly against durasteel. Multiple alarms resounded and gathered into a deafening clamor as shutters of flames suddenly closed across the canopy.
“Breech in oxygen lines,” the computer said. “Detect fire in cockpit. Engaging fire system. Fire system not operative. Recommend abandoning ship.”
Caught squarely in the inferno, Karista fumbled for the latches on her harness, but the dinghy jostled too violently for her to get a firm grip. She guessed that the flight suit was flame retardant, and maybe it was, but the suit’s internal computer suddenly alerted her of a breach. She breathed in a horrid stench. Gasped. Gasped again.
Then her air supply suddenly cleared as automatic systems filtered out the toxins. One, two, and her harness latches popped. She rolled out of the pilot’s seat, collapsed to the deck, then crawled out of the cockpit and down the aisle between a dozen or so seats. She caught a glimpse of her arms and shuddered. The flight suit had been blackened, and embers still glowed along her forearms. Artificial gravity suddenly went off line, and she drifted up to collide with a bank of viewports.
Sensing something ahead, she cocked her head and saw that the dinghy had cleared the liner, but, like a stone skipping off a pond, it now arrowed straight for Concordia’s aft antimatter cannon. She pushed her way to one of two escape hatches, touched a release button on the panel, and waited. Nothing. She pushed off the bulkhead and floated toward the other hatch. Two taps. Dead panel. A thick manual release lever held no more promise; it wouldn’t budge.
She glanced again to the cockpit as a gleaming round of antimatter fire left the Concordia’s cannon. Weapons operators had, of course, figured her for a target. She closed her eyes and felt the impact’s muffled thudding before an even greater force tore her out of the hold. She clambered in a cloud of ragged hunks of seat, hull, and hatch, staring beyond to a smeared canvas of stars.